The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was landmark legislation that led to other civil rights laws over the years. How did it come about? By the early 1960s, the civil rights movement had brought national attention to racial barriers in education, public transportation, and use of public accommodations, such as restaurants and theaters. In 1963—in the wake of harsh treatment of peaceful protestors by the police and the murders of civil rights activists—President John F. Kennedy called for a meaningful civil rights bill. His efforts were filibustered in the Senate. After Kennedy's assassination that year, his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, took up the cause. With the support of activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the bill passed in the House and Senate in 1964.

In the decades since the law's passage, prohibitions against discrimination have been expanded. Here's what the 1964 law includes, as well as a look at subsequent civil rights legislation.

Key Takeaways

  • The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. It addressed voting rights, employment, public accommodations, education, and more.
  • A series of laws in the 1960s and 1970s clarified and expanded the discrimination ban to include age and disability discrimination, and applied it to housing and voting rights.
  • The effectiveness of the agencies involved in civil rights enforcement has varied with the commitment of various presidential administrations.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is widely considered one of the greatest achievements of the civil rights movement. This landmark federal legislation prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. The law applied to public schools, government agencies, employers, and private institutions that received federal funds. Sections of the law, called “titles,” addressed equal access in various sectors of society.

Title I: Voting

Title I prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements, such as literacy tests. Title VIII required compilation of voter-registration and voting data in specific areas.

Title II: Public accommodations

Title II outlawed discrimination based on color, race, religion, or national origin in restaurants, theaters, hotels, and motels, as well as all other public accommodations involved in interstate commerce. Private clubs are exempt.

Title III: Public property

Title III prohibited state and local governments from denying access to public property and facilities based on color, race, religion, or national origin.

Title IV: Public schools

Title IV provided the basis for the desegregation of public schools.

Title V: Future expansion

Title V provided for the expansion of the Civil Rights Commission that was established by the earlier Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Title VI: Government agencies

Title VI prohibits discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funds under penalty of losing such funding.

Title VII: Employment

Title VII—one of the most far-reaching sections of the act—addressed equal employment opportunities by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin by public or private sector employers with 15 or more employees.

Titles IX-X-XI: Enforcement

Title IX facilitates the movement of civil rights cases from state courts to federal courts. Title X created the Community Relations Service that would assist in disputes involving discrimination claims. And Title XI affords defendants accused of criminal contempt under the act the right to a trial by jury and also sets penalties.

Additional Civil Rights Laws in the 1960s

24th Amendment to the Constitution

On January 23, 1964, the United States ratified the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting any poll tax in elections for federal officials. Use of poll taxes in state elections were banned in 1966 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Voting Rights Act of 1965

While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 required all voters to be treated equally, the 1965 Act banned the use of literacy tests, provided for federal oversight of voter registration in areas where less than 50% of the non-white population had registered to vote, and authorized the U.S. attorney general to investigate the use of poll taxes in state and local elections.

Fair Housing Act of 1968

The landmark Fair Housing Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson a week after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The law outlaws discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, or religion in housing sales, rentals, or brokerage services.

Civil Rights Laws in the 1970s

The next decade saw the passage of additional federal legislation that expanded Americans' civil rights.

Education Amendments Act of 1972

Discrimination on the basis of sex is prohibited by Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.

The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of age.

Department of Education Organization Act of 1979 

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) was created by the Department of Education Organization Act of 1979 to investigate alleged violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The influence of the office has waxed and waned with the interest of various presidential administrations in civil rights enforcement.

Civil Rights Laws, 1980s to the Present

The Civil Rights Law of 1964 underwent many legal challenges. Among the first was Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States. The motel, which served an interstate clientele, had long refused to rent rooms to African Americans. The motel owner argued that Congress did not have the authority under the U.S. Constitution to ban segregation in public accommodations. The Supreme Court ruled that the commerce clause of the Constitution authorized Congress to enact this type of legislation.

In 1984, in the case of Grove City College v. Bell, a private, church-affiliated, co-educational institution sued to enjoin enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for sex discrimination. The Supreme Court ruled that Title IX of the 1964 Act applied only to the institution’s financial aid department, which received federal funds, not to the school as a whole, which did not.

1988 Civil Rights Restoration Act

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Grove City College v. Bell, Congress passed the 1988 Civil Rights Restoration Act to restore broad institution-wide applications of federal laws to discrimination in education on the basis of race, age, and handicap in federally assisted programs.

President Ronald Reagan vetoed the 1988 Civil Rights Restoration Act, but Congress overrode the veto and passed the legislation.

American with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990

ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. In 2008, passage of the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) expanded the population of Americans who could be protected under the law by making changes to the definition of "disability."

Civil Rights Act of 1991

Bolstering earlier civil rights legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 allowed damages for victims of intentional employment discrimination.

Recent Supreme Court Civil Rights Decisions

In the 21st century, the Supreme Court promulgated four landmark decisions that extend and protect the rights of the LGTBQ+ community.

Lawrence v. Texas , 2003

Originating in a police arrest of two men in Houston, Texas, that led to a criminal conviction, this case struck down laws making same-sex intercourse a crime.

United States v. Windsor, 2013

The court struck down a federal law that denied benefits to married same-sex couples. Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were married in Canada. When Spyer died, leaving her estate to Windsor, Windsor was denied a federal tax exemption for surviving spouses. 

Obergefell v. Ohio, 2014

The Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. Fourteen same-sex couples—and two men whose same-sex partners were deceased—filed suit claiming that denying them the right to marry violated the Fourteenth Amendment. 

Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia.; Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda; Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, 2020

On June 15, 2020 the Supreme Court ruled that the civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The ruling came on three cases: Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia.; Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda; and Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC. In the first, Bobstock joined a gay softball league and was then fired from his job at a government program helping neglected and abused children. In the second case, Zarda, a sky-diving instructor, said he was fired because he was gay. And in the third, a woman who disclosed she was transgender—and would start working in women’s clothing—was fired from a funeral home.

Where to File a Complaint

A number of different federal agencies are empowered to address violations of civil rights laws in their jurisdictions. Here are links to the agencies where you can file a discrimination complaint.

Effects and Limits of Civil Rights Law

Civil rights laws have made substantial gains for equal treatment in many areas of American life. They have not, however, managed to even the playing field of opportunity. Racism—the belief in the inferiority or superiority of a particular race, which was used to “justify” slavery—retains its hold. Systemic racism refers to the system of laws, regulations, and societal arrangements that keep many people of color in poverty and boost opportunities for White people.

Illegal-but-widespread housing discrimination forces many to live in poor, higher-crime neighborhoods. Police violence kills hundreds of African Americans every year, and discriminatory arrests and sentences have resulted in the disproportionate incarceration of Black people. Low voter turnout leads to lack of representation and the underfunding of schools and civic projects in poor and minority areas. Poor education and job discrimination limit opportunities and income. Lack of healthcare leads to high disease rates and lower life expectancy. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a higher toll on U.S. Black, Latinx, and Native American communities. Poverty, unemployment, voting rights, access to healthcare, and quality education remain the most important issues for civil rights.